6/14/24

Suddenly Last Summer: Does It Resonate?

 

 


 

Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

Columbia Pictures, 114 minutes, Not-rated.

★★★

 

More than a dozen Tennessee Williams plays have been made into movies, including Suddenly Last Summer in 1959. It had the advantages of being directed by the talented Joseph Mankiewicz, a screenplay penned by Gore Vidal, and the incomparable Katherine Hepburn in its cast. She was more than up to task of a Williams drama but by then, her star was eclipsing and that of Elizabeth Taylor was ascendant. She would win a Golden Globe for Suddenly Last Summer, not Hepburn.

 

The film also stars Mercedes McCambridge and Montgomery Clift, which made it well-acted and well-crafted all around. The open question is how well it holds up and on that score the answer is decidedly mixed. It largely depends on how you feel about the now-outmoded psychiatric precepts upon which it rests.

 

It is something of a pas de deux between Vi(olet) Venable (Hepburn) and her niece Cathy Holly (Taylor). Cathy is a troubled but reluctant patient in a private Catholic hospital. She suffers from trauma resulting from the death of her cousin Sebastian while they were traveling together. Call it a European vacation gone horribly wrong. Cathy adored Sebastian, but her aunt Vi blames her for failing to protect her son Sebastian. From what? Ahh, there’s the rub.

 

Cathy exhibits severe behavioral issues. She is cynical, babbles, and is prone to angry outbursts. Her mother Grace (McCambridge) insists that Cathy is just a sensitive poet type, but for 1937 New Orleans–the post-vacation setting for Williams’ play–that’s partially code for meaning she’s unorthodox, obscene, seductive, and oversexed. But does this make her dangerous? Vi thinks so and encourages Dr. John Cukrowicz (Clift) to lobotomize Cathy for her own good. He can tell that she has sublimized a deep shock, but insists that Cathy first be treated by talk therapy. The wild card is that Vi promises hospital director Dr. Lawrence Hockstader (Albert Dekker) she will fund a new wing, but only if Dr. Cukrowicz removes the “hideous story” from Cathy’s brain.

 

Hideous story? Holy Sigmund Freud, Batman! Without revealing too much, sex plays a role in the “hideous story,” but are we still talking about Cathy? Vi insists her son “saw the face of God” before he died and the more Dr. Cukrowicz talks with Vi, the more we wonder whose sanity is most in question. So too does Cukrowicz, who thinks that buried pain has made both women reality-challenged. Two stories will surface and, in my opinion, reviewers missed the possibility that they might be the same story remembered in radically different ways.

 

Suddenly Last Summer was billed as a mystery thriller by some, and Gothic noir by others. My vote goes to the latter. In a particularly creepy moment bathed in shadows, d desperation, then resignation, Cathy is certain that a lobotomy is imminent. Imagine her caged anguish. Tennessee Williams often placed characters in trapped mental spaces. Some observers claim these paralleled Williams’ conflicted Catholic worldview and his mystical and moral qualms. This won’t make any sense unless you watch the film, but there’s a side story involving cannibalism could be symbolic and imaginary, not literal. And, yes, there is indeed quite a lot that’s cloaked in Freudian garb, raiment that often unsettles contemporary views of sexuality.

 

It's almost guaranteed that certain ethnic aspects of Suddenly Last Summer will seem past their sell-by date. Sebastian’s fate takes place on the fictional island of  Cabeza de Lobo. It looks like a Caribbean location, but it was filmed in the Balearic islands of Spain. They do not come off well. Ethnocentrism? Exoticism? Projected primitivism? A commentary on repressed colonialism?

 

Strangely, the film was criticized in its day for stretching Williams’ one-act play with needless filler to bring it to movie length. Today it feels like there’s too much going on! Alas, it ends rather meekly and abruptly, as if there was no convincing way to complete it. Yet, Hepburn and Taylor? Is that worth a peek? Of course.

 

Rob Weir

6/12/24

June 2024 Music: Ruth Moody Lynne Hanson Beth Bombra JM Clifford Moonsville Collective


 

How about a five-way tie for best artist of the month? I lucked upon some amazing music and can honestly say that any of all of these would make a wonderful addition to your playlist. 

 


 

Ruth Moody is the songwriting anchor of the Wailin’ Jennys, but this Winnipeg-based artist is a solo treat all on her own. Any musician would assert that Wanderer is a good title for a record, but Moody means it on more cylinders than one–coming of age, relationships, motherhood, musing on the meaning of home, and life’s ups and downs.  Her music is often filed under bluegrass, but Wanderer is more folky in its emphasis on lyrics, polished but understated arrangements, and a voice as calming as a breeze through the sweetgrass. Moody sings of her journey to contentment on the Wanderer. Nor is she afraid to be vulnerable or admit to bouts of self-doubt. “Already Free” is an example: I’m running from the future or the past/Or somebody I can never be… Maybe I’m already free. She even revisits adolescent regrets in "Seventeen,” and if it’s not putting yourself out there to back to that age, you were raised in a sealed bunker! “Twilight” is another small gem. Add it up and you have a musical treasure chest. 

 


 

Lynne Hanson has been lionized on this blog before and Just a Poet is the latest reason to celebrate. She’s also Canadian, but she shatters images of northern niceness by exploring the skeptical side of life. “Spray Paint” has meaty hooks, but is the relationship about which she’s singing ending or finding its way to new beginnings? Number two is doubtful!  Hanson’s alto voice gives everything she does a slightly dark edge of mystery, including herself. “Outlaw Lover” poses as a confessional in which she’s bad news in many ways, including being the blue tattoo that your mama fears. This one draws comparisons to Bonnie Raitt’s blues-influenced country/folk approach. Hanson calls such songs “raw Truth” and that’s pretty good tag. “Just a Little Bit” is heartbreak country and this time it’s someone else who might deliver pain Great line: Heartbreak hurts but it never killed anyone. Detect a theme? In the doomed affair of “Rubik’s Cube” she describes herself as being as jumbled as that puzzle. Hanson is on the money about singing raw truth. One suspects that “Weeds” might be the most autobiographical selection on the record. It has a strong walking beat and delivers the message that she is putting all of me in every single song I ever wrote/Ain’t work ‘cause I do it for me.

 


 Beth Bombara sometimes sings with the birdlike delicacy of Patty Griffin, even when she’s been a rock n’ roller. It All Goes Up is a departure.  She picks up an acoustic guitar on “Curious and Free” and sings Don’t have to know where we’re going/As long as the tide keeps pulling in. The overall treatment is mysterious–from the catch in her voice to its melancholy feel and a “fiddle” that’s probably a mellotron, an early electronic keyboard/computer hybrid. “Electricity” is a mix of old and new. It has passages with the frangibility of love songs, but with electric breakouts that pulse with… well… electricity. Bombara is a Tom Petty fan and “Lonely Walls” has the vibe of one of Petty’s more introspective songs. “Everything I Wanted” is almost classic Bombara in that it’s bop rock served with blue-collar attitude and irony. I’ve been following Bombara for a few years and, though I like her hard surfaces more than the shiny ones, I applaud the fact that she keeps testing her limits.

 

 


If I told you I had an album titled Trains, Thinkin’ and Drinkin’ from a guy who uses his initials as his first name, and dropped a single called “Damn Shame,” you’d probably start thinking Alabama, Tennessee, or maybe Kentucky. Nope. J. M. Clifford is a Brooklyn native and an elementary school teacher.  He underlined the conjunction on the cover of his new album and, from where I sit, he’s heavier on the thinkin’ than the drinkin’. Like many of us, he had time to think during Covid lockdown, plus he was dealing with the aftermath of a divorce. “Damn Shame” is a good song, but “Complicated Man” gets to the heart of the matter even better. He takes the wind out of his own sails on the self-effacing first song, its upbeat bluegrass tempo a veil over his broken relationship. He cowrote “Complicated Man” with Ron Pope. It’s an infectious  bluegrass song featuring mighty fine picking and a mountain music gospel feel. No wonder he draws Norman Blake comparisons. It’s worth plenty to hear Clifford pick. When it’s available, check out “Billy Goose.” By the way, the title track is bathed in irony. 

 

 

Speaking of drinking, how about a song called “I Like Drinking Beer?” It’s performed like a Texas two-step and is a litany of all the things the band loves with the punchline and I like drinking beer. Welcome to the Moonsville Collective, a California quintet that plays old-time music and not-so-old songs that sound timeless. They also like having fun and don’t always take themselves seriously. They have a song titled “Ain’t Got No Home,” but it’s not the one penned by Woody Guthrie, and give a string band treatment to “Red Rocking Chair.” They also do one called “Long Gone” because, why not add still another song of that name to the annals of music. A Hundred Highways, their first new record in half a dozen years. Ya’ gotta love any band with the cheek to do a song titled “Helen Highway.” You want drinking songs? They’ve got a million of them!


Rob Weir







6/10/24

Promise and Failure of the Arts and Crafts Movement




 

Sometimes the very best and very worst ideas are one and the same. Industrialization began to catch on in the early 19th century and by mid-century was on its way to becoming dominant in how goods were manufactured in Western society. You didn’t have to be a Luddite to be critical of the factory system. It was dirty, unhealthy, wasteful of natural resources, and exploited wage-earners. It did make goods make goods cheaply, but that was a mixed blessing. Even when they cost less, they were also “cheap” in quality, generic, and reduced consumer choices. In clothing and footwear, for example, “bespoke” goods tailored to fit the wearer were replaced by predetermined sizes. Thus was born the old joke “one size fits none.”

 

In Britain various visionaries–some driven by artistic motives, others by social and political ideals–asked a simple question: Should manufactured goods be rejected in favor of all things artisan-made? Proponents of the arts and crafts movement thought that reviving handcraft work would yield well-made and beautiful objects that could be sold at prices the masses could afford. They were right about the aesthetics of their endeavors, but dead wrong on how affordable they would be, as anyone who has ever attended a high-quality craft studio or show can attest.

 

The arts and craft movement fought the good fight. You name it and it was made: wallpaper, metal work, lamps, pottery, furniture, textiles, painting, houses…. You’ve probably heard of some of the key movers and shakers: Charles Robert Ashbee, William Arthur Smith Benson, Walter Crane, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Morris, and John Ruskin. The latter two could be considered movement lynchpins. Much of it was a based upon romanticized notions of medievalism. The paintings of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti went a step further and evinced Greek and Roman tales that were reworked in the Middle Ages! In many respects those Victorians seeking to rediscover the “folk” in everything ending up producing things no laborer or ploughman could dream of affording. Google some of the “cottages” Philip Speakman Webb built in the name of “art of the common building.

 


 

The Arts and Crafts movement made its way to the United States, where it was just as na├»ve as its European influencers. Frank Lloyd Wright drew inspiration from Webb. Do you live in a Wright home? Many American designers are also acclaimed figures: William Wallace Denslow (illustrator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), Elbert and Bertha Hubbard, William “Dard” Hunter (handmade paper), architect William Lightfoot Price,  Gustav Stickley. The U.S. movement stumbled over the same contradictions as the Europeans in that most acolytes were designers whose work was made by others–often via the same industrial methods they sought to dethrone.

Nonetheless, those designs and finished products are gorgeous. You can see them in many places, including: Ashcroft in North Carolina, the Arden Community in Delaware, Craftsman Farms in New Jersey, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. To whet your appetite here are a few gems from the Museum of American Arts and Crafts in St. Petersburg, Florida. No need to concentrate of the design firms; just enjoy the beauty of these objects. It’s the difference between the artistic and the prosaic.